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[291]

The objects of Longstreet's attack were important and manifold. By crossing the narrow Nansemond and occupying the railroads in rear, the city would fall an easy prey together with its thirteen thousand defenders, its vast commissary, quartermaster, medical, and ordnance stores, and sixty miles of railroad iron. Thence the occupation of Norfolk would be but a holiday march. It is also assumed that the ├ęclat attaching to the name of a General who should accomplish these objects, may have had some influence on a mind notoriously eager for military renown.

To crown his undertaking with success three preliminary movements were carefully planned and put into execution.

1st. The Suffolk garrison must be weakened. To accomplish this, Hill was sent with a considerable force to attack Little Washington, N. C., whence he could in three or four days rejoin the main army in Virginia.

2d. Pontoon and siege trains were collected at proper points and held in readiness for an instant move.

3d. The troops were also conveniently stationed in such manner that they might be literally precipitated upon the doomed town, sixteen thousand being posted on the Blackwater, the remainder along the railway to Petersburgh. As was anticipated, Hill's movement resulted in an order directing General Peck to forward three thousand troops to General Foster. It will now be seen in what manner was sprung the trap thus skilfully prepared.

Longstreet's spies advised him promptly of the order removing the three thousand troops, and he instantly put his army in march, crossed the Blackwater on several bridges, with four divisions,1 in all thirty thousand men, moving in three columns, and by a forced march arrived in a few hours before the Federal camps, surprising and capturing the cavalry pickets as they advanced.

The Federal General, from information given by spies, deserters, contrabands, and the contents of a captured rebel mail, fathomed the plans of the rebel commander, and was in readiness to receive him. Admiral Lee having been telegraphed, gunboats were sent up the Nansemond, in readiness to resist and delay, though it was impossible for them to prevent a crossing. Seeing this, Longstreet apparently made a sudden change of plan, and resolved to carry the place by storm. His columns advanced on our works, capturing pickets as above stated, just as the reenforcements for General Foster were leaving on the train. As a matter of course these troops were retained.

The enemy, upon coming within range of our works, found them firmly garrisoned and bristling with steel. An interchange of a few shots convinced them that the surprise was a total failure, and there remained only their numerical superiority as a guarantee for final success. Leaving a considerable force in front of the main defences of the town, who from time to time en gaged our troops to divert attention from his real designs, he then directed his attention to the Nansemond.

The first object to be attained was of course to destroy or expel the army and navy gunboats from the river. As the gunboats consisted only of a half-dozen armed tugs and ferry-boats, (of these the Smith Briggs and West End being army boats,) with machinery and magazines unprotected, almost unable to manoeuvre in the narrow, shallow, and crooked stream, this was apparently an easy task. In the silence of the night, battery after battery was constructed and powerful guns placed in position at points favorable to command the stream and protect a bridge. These batteries, as soon as unmasked, engaged the gunboats. Fortunately the river fleet was commanded by two officers, young in years, but of unconquerable bravery skill, and pertinacity. And though the frail steamers were riddled with countless shot-holes, and a long list of casualties attested the severity of their trials, they were never driven from the river, and but for a few days from the close vicinity of the town. The army gunboats, under Captains Lee and Rowe, never left the Upper Nansemond.

To Brigadier-General Getty, commanding Third division Ninth army corps, was intrusted the defences of the Nansemond River. A more capable officer or more efficient troops could not have been selected for this arduous and responsible duty. The nature of the duty is comprehended in the statement that five thousand men were to hold a line eight miles long, and prevent forty thousand from crossing a stream too small to permit a large steamer from turning round. Moreover, the banks of the Nansemond were of such a character that troops could not, without making long marches around ravines, creeks, and swamps, pass as reenforcements from one point to another. To remedy this feature in the topography, General Getty instantly commenced the construction of a military road several miles long, including several bridges and long spaces of corduroy, following the general course of the river-bank. By means of the most unheard of exertions the troops completed this road in three days, making it passable for artillery.

As soon as the rebel batteries on the opposite bank were unmasked, General Getty's skill as an artillerist was brought into play with remarkable effect. In company with Colonel Dutton, commanding his Third brigade, (an officer of engineers,) he selected positions for rifle-pits and batteries. The ground was traced out at nightfall, and the next morning the astonished rebels would be saluted in their works by a storm of rifled shells, fired by invisible gunners. This system of warfare continued for several days, the rebels continually striving to gain a permanent foothold on some point of the shore, and being as continually baffled by the resistless gunnery of our land batteries and the gunboats.

On the eighteenth of April, however, it seemed that their object was finally accomplished. An


1 Those of Hood, French, Pickett, and Anderson.

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